Decades-Old New York Law Keeping Police Misconduct Records Inaccessible May Be Overturned, Transforming Criminal Defense
Police misconduct records have long been kept a secret here in New York, which inevitably affects criminal defense cases and the ability to get cases thrown out due to police violating defendants’ constitutional rights, as well as accessing information related to previous police misconduct that could affect a defendant’s guilty plea. However, due to the recent protests that have been underway after the death of George Floyd, this decades-old New York State law, known as 50-a, which has enabled all of this, may finally be overturned.
The Original Intention Behind the Law in 1976
Section 50-a of the New York Civil Rights Law allows law enforcement officers to refuse disclosure of “personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion.” It was originally passed by state legislators who felt that they had struck a reasonable balance between the need for access to misconduct records and the need to protect officers’ privacy; specifically, to prevent criminal defense attorneys from using the records to cross examine police witnesses during criminal prosecutions. The concern was namely over unsubstantiated allegations, confidential information, and medical records that were reportedly being “wrongly disclosed to the public” and “misused.” In passing the law, the assumption was that discretion would be provided to judges to release those records that defendants needed in order to be able to defend themselves and withhold those that served no public interest.
What It Is Today: Defendants “Flying Blind”
However, in response to police fighting to expand the exemption, it has, instead, been expanded by the courts to essentially allow the police to withhold any record from the public that could conceivably be used to evaluate the performance of a police officer, resulting in defendants being forced to make life-changing decisions, such as whether they should challenge an officer’s actions in court or just accept a guilty plea, without knowing if the officer has perhaps previously engaged in misconduct – such as fabricating evidence – that has resulted in innocent people being charged. Specifically, according to an investigation that examined internal New York Police Department files between 2011 and 2015, hundreds of officers who engaged in excessive force, sexual harassment, assault of New York residents, driving under the influence, ticket-fixing, firing their guns inappropriately, lying to grand juries, attacking innocent people, and more kept their jobs, suffering little-to-no punishment (such as “dismissal probation”), while all of this information was kept from the public and a number of criminal defendants abused by these officers even successfully sued and settled with the city for hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result.
Will The Protests Now Change That?
New York is unique in still having such a law on the books, as states such as California have since dismantled them. However, in June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he would support a repeal of the law if the state Legislature passed it. If the law is completely repealed or even just amended to be more restrictive and less broad, vital information that is necessary in order for those charged with crimes to properly make important decisions, such as whether they should accept a plea deal, given that juries are more likely to believe police than defendants, as well as assemble their defense, could be obtainable.
If You Are Facing Charges In New York, Contact The Very Best in Criminal Defense
If you have been charged with a crime, contact NYC criminal attorney Mark I. Cohen for the very best in criminal defense representation. We fight aggressively for the rights of our clients, including those who are the victim of police misconduct.